Coates’s Mecca is Howard University. It might not be his son’s, which is fine, since they cannot be black in the same way. There may be something in its tradition, though, that Samori must acknowledge.
Coates was admitted to Howard but “formed and shaped by the Mecca” (40). The former is an institution, the latter a force that gets its power from the institution and contains the energy of all African peoples. He saw the power out on the Yard with all of the diverse students, saw it in the history of Howard itself. The black world was opening up for him and it was not just a photonegative of the white world. Black people also have a world, but one chosen for them by the fences and laws of white people.
Coates contrasts what he began to understand with what he knew before. All heroes were white, serious history was white, serious writers were white. He remembered a quote from Saul Bellow asking whom the Tolstoy of the Zulus was; black people were outside civilization, outside culture. Their history was inferior.
Coates had Malcolm X, though, and his other readings. He wanted to create a new language for himself. He wanted a new story and a new history and the Dream of the “black race.” He read Chancellor Williams’s Destruction of Black Civilization when he got to Howard and learned how Queen Nzinga resisted the Portuguese. When she was refused a seat by the Europeans, she had an adviser make a seat with his body for her.
He read more and more, going to the library and checking out all the books he could from the authors he heard about in class and in the Yard. He devoured everything and thought his investigations would reveal “history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected” (47). Unfortunately, though, he quickly saw his heroes debate, create factions, and fight amongst themselves. His ancestors fought and disagreed just as often as they agreed, if not more.
He would take breaks in the Yard and think about Malcolm. He came to realize that his personal freedom was in books, not the classroom. He made friends who thought the same, including Samori’s Uncle Ben.
Coates sought out fellow travelers. He wrote bad poetry and recited it at open mic nights and sought the wisdom of older poets. They challenged his dream that would replace the Dream; he once thought he needed a “carbon copy of white claims to civilization” (50), but now wondered about the validity of the claims themselves.
Coates tells his son the names of all of his literary, historical, and philosophical influences so Samori knows his father did not do it alone. He remembers the impact of Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” and how as he learned to write poetry he was actually learning how to think as well. The truths he heard from other poets were “small hard things” (52) like relationships, family, smoking, the stoop. They were not just revolution and African history. The discord and panoply of experience started to make him feel powerful.
He also started to feel discomfited by his education and started to think about the world outside Howard. He knew of a place in Washington D.C., Prince George County, where very rich black people lived. This reminded him to be wary not just of the Dream, but of his own nation’s dreams.
The history department at Howard proved instrumental in breaking down his own myths. They disabused him of his Malcomite dreams, challenging him on his assertions. One professor of a Central African history class retold the story of Queen Nzinga by focusing on the adviser whom she sat on. Coates was stunned to realize that his own breakable body was closer to that of the adviser’s, not the Queen’s.
His studies began to reveal that many people were oppressed and could be considered part of this category of “black,” which might just mean the lowest of the low. These realizations were hard. He came to see there was no nobility in oppression or being bound or even in black blood itself. He discovered a response to Bellow’s Tolstoy quip by Ralph Wiley: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership” (56). Coates accepted this, but also knew deep down that he was part of a tribe even if it was invented. He saw it in his classes and out in the Yard.
This was his first time living alone and taking care of himself. He began to date. His first love was a dreamy girl from California. She beguiled him because she was worldly and held that in her body. He then fell for another girl whose tolerant background and sexual openness taught him a great deal. He recognized his own capacity for plunder in how he treated homosexuals; he felt “my tribe was shattering and reforming around me” (60). He learned to love differently, softly.
He saw how black bodies danced freely in clubs even though they could be beaten in the streets. He wanted to write like they danced. His first relationships with white people were his editors who helped him as he began to publish. Journalism opened him up to people and their stories; it was also a tool to explore and learn.
He interrogated his old world in his head and thought about how he was changing. The girl with the long dreads whom he loved also loved a boy named Prince Jones. Prince was handsome, warm, kind, and generous. He was plundered, though, and left a wound in Coates and his world.
He fell in love one more time at the Mecca – it was with his son’s mother, Kenyatta. She was from Chicago and had never known her father. They kissed, smoked, and talked. She opened up knowledge for him that “the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know” (65). She was familiar with all of the cosmic injustices.
Their relationship was organic and unplanned; Samori was unplanned also. They felt they had to protect him above all else because they had made him without his vote. Coates tried to believe that his body and his fate were his own, remembering people saying he had to “man up” and take care of his own.
He remembered visiting Samori’s mother in Chicago once and being struck by the housing projects. It felt like a moral injustice no one cared about. He also remembered when her mother came and visited them in their poor living conditions. On her way out, she told him to take care of her daughter. He realized everything had changed.
When Samori was born, Coates thought of the Mecca and how he wanted his son to have everything. He named him for Samori Toure, a man who struggled against French colonizers for his body. There is value in struggle, but no guarantee of survival. No one can control their enemies or their weapons, but they can decide to “never willingly hand over our own bodies or the bodies of our friends” (69).
He cautions his son never to forget that they were slaves longer than they were free. The past is nuanced and not a narrative solely of redemption. Slaves “were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history” (70). The God of history is atheist; nothing is guaranteed.
Samori is a black boy and must be responsible for his body as well as the worst actions of other black bodies. He must be aware of the bodies of the powerful. He must know what black women experience with their bodies. He must remember that all of their bodies were once turned to sugar, gold, cotton, and tobacco.
In this section Coates writes about his intellectual awakening at the Mecca, Howard University. This is, and has been, one of the few spaces in America where blacks can gather together away from the white community and learn, commune, and fully be themselves. In the 20th century, the university enjoys the benefit of a long heritage and an astonishing pedigree of black scholars and thinkers. It is a place of incredible diversity; Coates marvels at West Indians, Africans, and people from all over the United States. It is a place where black people from all walks of life and experiences can find their place. Coates is just at home there as Prince Jones, a young man from a privileged background. Both feel the comfort of finally relaxing, of finally learning about themselves and their people.
On the one hand, there is much that is universal about a young man coming into his own in college. His exhilaration from his classes and studies, his experimentation with poetry, his awe at the good dancers he saw in clubs, his falling in love with interesting and beguiling people, his challenging of his own preconceptions, are what many people experience when they go to college. On the other hand, something else is at play here. Coates writes of how unfamiliar he was with the black intellectual titans except for the obvious ones. Similarly, he writes of how the full panoply of black experience was never presented to him: “Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white… the history books… spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’… Serious history was the West, and the West was white” (43). At Howard he studies great African rulers, black poets, philosophers, and historians. What he learns is that his own ancestors are not in agreement on many important matters; this is difficult for him to come to terms with and forces him to be more nuanced in his thinking. He has many epiphanies as he delves into the debates and divergences.
The impact of Coates’s intellectual curiosity and his studies can be felt in the text itself. Jack Hamilton in Slate writes, “Coates is more teacher than preacher, a polymath whose breadth of knowledge on matters ranging from literature to pop culture to French philosophy to the Civil War bleeds through every page of his book, distilled into profound moments of discovery, immensely erudite but never showy.” Hamilton compares Coates to Toni Morrison, notable as Morrison was the only person Coates sought for an endorsement for this book when it was published.
This section also includes awakenings of a different sort – emotional ones. Coates is open about his father’s and grandparents’ hardness and subsequently how difficult at times it was for him to be vulnerable and soft. The women he met at Howard taught him how to love, how to really be there for people, how to open one’s mind and heart to new experiences and new ways of loving people.
Although this book is very much about black men, Coates does briefly note an epiphany he had regarding homosexuals: “But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity” (60). He also says a couple of times how black women were and are plundered in even more perverse ways, acknowledging the long history of rape, violence, and humiliations both large and small (such as Kenyatta being told she is “pretty for a black girl”). Hamilton has a critique to offer on this point, commenting in his review:
Between the World and Me isn’t a perfect book… For starters, while Coates has been quick to credit feminist theory with inspiring his interest in the body, this is an inescapably male-centric text—let’s hope we might soon see a book of similar profile and prestige published with an eye toward daughters (or even nieces; The Fire Next Time isn’t passing any Bechdel Tests either). Furthermore, given the extent to which the menaces of "illegal immigrants" and "Islamic terrorists" have been used to stoke the fires of white fear in the 21st-century U.S., Coates’ analysis of the contemporary American racial imagination may strike some as overly black-and-white.